GB tennis coach: VI tennis enhanced my life after losing my vision
A tennis coach who lost her vision after suffering a stroke in her twenties is hoping to serve up medals for Great Britain at the world’s largest sporting event for blind and partially sighted athletes this summer.
Frankie Rohan was a socially active 27-year-old and home owner with a steady job in sales when her world was turned upside down back in 2015.
The Durham native suffered a series of transient ischaemic attacks, better known as mini strokes, in the space of a week.
“It came completely out of the blue,” she said. “I am Type 1 diabetic so there’s always a bit of a risk there. I was just unlucky.”
Five months in hospital followed, as the stroke combined with her diabetes wreaked havoc with her health, resulting in the need for a kidney transplant and losing all the sight in her right eye and most of the vision in her left.
More than two years had passed following Frankie’s discharge from hospital when, with some gentle persuasion from her mother, she spoke to a representative of the North East Visually Impaired Tennis Club.
It was to be an introduction that would help rebuild her life and start a journey that will see her play a key coaching role in the 2023 International Blind Sport Federation (IBSA) World Games, which is taking place at the University of Birmingham and other nearby venues between Monday, August 14 and Sunday, August 27.
“Mentally it was very difficult, I was in complete denial,” said Frankie, who shone in sports when at school and played golf at an international level.
“I just didn’t think I would be able to do anything else without being frustrated about the whole situation. I didn’t want to do something different to what I did before.
“My mam attended a course that was run by the RNIB for parents and carers of those with sight loss. Someone there mentioned to her about tennis and that I was quite active before my stroke.
“A connection was there but it certainly wasn’t of interest to me. I had to physically get dragged along and forced to go and talk to them.
“Looking back, getting involved with visually impaired tennis has massively enhanced my life, I dread to think where I’d be if I’d never met those people and had those opportunities.”
Fortunately for Frankie, the people she approached were Rosie Pybus and Wendy Glasper, two prominent individuals in the creation and growth of visually impaired tennis.
“Wendy dragged a table and chairs in the middle of the floor, gave me a tennis racket and said try this,” the 36-year-old recalled. “It sounds a bit cliché but the tears were rolling down my face when I was doing it. It was then when I knew I could do something.
“I’d had a bit of a rough time of it in the previous couple of years. I grew in confidence and fed off the passion people have for the sport.
“There was a need from coaching to open the sport up and get visually impaired tennis on the map. I think I knew instantly I wanted to be involved and do more with it.”
Visually impaired tennis is among the sports that will feature at the 2023 IBSA World Games – of which RNIB is the lead sponsor – and comes in two forms. One is for partially sighted individuals, the other is blind tennis – where participants wear eye patches and shades.
Both versions use an audible ball with the key differences being the size of the court and the number of bounces that are permitted between shots.
Frankie played partially-sighted tennis on a bigger court but when her vision began to deteriorate, she decided to focus on coaching the next generation at the North East Visually Impaired Tennis Club, having already gained her Level 2 coaching qualification.
“I was far too competitive to keep playing,” the former prison officer said. “I was getting frustrated because I wasn’t able to play to the level I once did.
“I’ve had people at my club who were like me, completely in denial about their sight. Seeing the growth and progression of people like that, it’s fantastic.
“I now coach the Great Britain national squad, mainly the B1 category, but I am assistant to the head coach for all the squads. That’s a big moment for me. I used to play for the squad, but my sight deteriorated.”
Stepping back from playing and focusing on coaching also led to her landing a job she loves in December 2021. As workforce lead with British Blind Sport, Frankie is in a pivotal position allowing her to raise and drive the standards of delivering visually impaired sports opportunities to others.
Her focus this summer will hone in on delivering medals for Great Britain at the 2023 IBSA World Games – where around 1,250 blind and partially sighted athletes from around 70 countries will be competing across 10 sports.
“The IBSA World Games are massive,” Frankie said. “We’ve got three sports that are trying to qualify for the Paralympic games within it. That is huge with the prospect of going to Paris.
“As far as tennis goes, we’re high achievers in the European competitions so we definitely have got a brilliant chance of bringing home some medals. The last international our tennis team played, we pretty much cleared up in all the categories.
“I am looking forward to doing the same again, but with it being a world event, there’s a lot more competitors coming over and a lot more talent and ability across all countries.
“We’re just looking forward to it. Fingers crossed I think we’ve got a good chance, we’ve just got to try our best and see what happens.” For more information about the 2023 IBSA World Games visit www.ibsagames2023.co.uk, and for more details on ways that blind and partially sighted people can get involved in sport, see British Blind Sport and RNIB’s See Sport Differently campaign: www.britishblindsport.org.uk/see-sport-differently